Burundi: Closed VTC
On Monday (22 June), Security Council members will convene a closed videoconferencing (VTC) meeting on Burundi. Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Bintou Keita is expected to brief. In May, the Council was expected to meet on Burundi, in keeping with the quarterly briefings on the issue requested by resolution 2303. That meeting was not scheduled, however, and the decision was taken to postpone it until after Burundi’s presidential elections, which were held on 20 May. A meeting was then scheduled to take place on 11 June, but with the sudden death of outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, it was postponed until 22 June.
Burundi’s 20 May presidential elections were organised to determine a successor to Nkurunziza, who won a controversial third term in 2015, precipitating mass demonstrations and increased violence and repression against his opponents. Seven candidates competed in this year’s elections. Evariste Ndayishimiye, Secretary-General of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD)—Burundi’s ruling party—and Agathon Rwasa of the National Congress for Liberty (CNL), the leading opposition party, were considered the top two candidates.
The election campaign was conducted in a tense environment, with sporadic reports of violence and the arrest of at least 140 members of the political opposition. On 11 May, the Burundian government informed the East African Community (EAC) that EAC election observers would be required to quarantine for 14 days because of COVID-19; consequently, the EAC was unable to undertake its observation activities. The threat of COVID-19 did not prevent the candidates from organising large campaign rallies.
According to media reports and public reports from diplomatic presences in Bujumbura, polling took place in a largely violence-free environment. However, speaking to the media on 22 May, Rwasa said that more than 200 CNL supporters were arrested on election day and that he retained the option of challenging the results over suspected fraud. On 25 May, provisional results were announced with Ndayishimiye winning 68 percent of the vote and Rwasa taking 24 percent.
Following the announcement of results, Rwasa lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Court, arguing that voting irregularities had tainted the outcome. However, on 4 June, the Constitutional Court upheld the results, and stated that any irregularities could not have had an impact on the entire electoral process. Following the Constitutional Court’s decision, Rwasa withdrew his threat of taking the case to the East African Court of Justice. Speaking to international media, he said that his “CNL party will respect what the law says by doing what the law allows us to do. Also, we will monitor the new leaders to see where they will take the country”. Several other opposition figures subsequently echoed Rwasa’s sentiment.
With Nkurunzizia preparing to step down and scheduled to transfer authority to Ndayishimiye on 20 August, the Burundian government announced on 9 June that Nkurunziza had died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Out of respect for the official period of mourning, the Security Council meeting that had been scheduled for 11 June was postponed to Monday.
Despite the completion of the elections and the announcement of Ndayishimiye as winner, Nkurunziza’s death raised several constitutional questions, including who would become Burundi’s president until Ndayishimiye’s swearing-in. Article 121 of Burundi’s 2018 Constitution states that: “in case of vacancy caused by resigning, death or any other cause by the president then the Speaker of the National Assembly takes over in the interim until a new president is elected”. On 12 June, the Constitutional Court ruled that Ndayishimiye’s status as president-elect meant that the Burundi did not need an interim president and that Ndayishimiye should be sworn in as soon as possible. On 18 June, Ndayishimiye was inaugurated.
Council members are likely to offer their condolences on the untimely death of Nkurunziza. In addition, they will be interested in hearing Keita’s assessment of the situation, including if the elections were in line with the joint call by the AU Commission and the UN Secretariat for “all entities involved in organizing the 20 May elections, the defense and security forces and state-owned media to fully contribute to preserving a stable and peaceful environment, pre-requisite for free, inclusive, fair, transparent and credible elections in Burundi”. Council members may also wish to better understand from Keita how Burundi’s elections and transition offer opportunities for improved engagement between the Council and the Burundian authorities.
Given the successful completion of the elections process and the peaceful transition of power, Council members may want to look anew at the situation in the country, which has often been the source of strong divisions amongst Council members. Some members maintain that, given the political tensions and human rights violations in the country, Burundi should remain on the Council’s agenda while others, notably Russia, China and the Council’s three African members, argue that the country should come off the agenda, as it does not represent a threat to international peace and security. (Under the current rules of procedure, for an item to be removed from the Council’s “seizure list”—which is published annually as document S/YEAR/10 and updated weekly—three years need to have passed since the Council last formally discussed the item or a formal decision by the Council must be taken to have that item removed from the agenda).
Some Council members are, in any case, likely to propose revisiting the frequency of the Council’s current quarterly briefings and reporting on Burundi. Members may also explore whether enhanced roles for the African Union or East African Community can be established to assist Burundi’s transition, if the Council were to take on a less prominent role. Other members are likely to argue that the Council should seek improved engagement with Burundi, but that more time may be needed to assess the transition.
Finally, members will want to learn about the situation of COVID-19 in Burundi and what impact it may be having on the country’s political transition and economic development. With the announcement that Nkurunziza’s wife had been airlifted to Kenya on 31 May to seek treatment for the virus, some media have speculated that Nkurunziza’s death could have been the result of complications from COVID-19. As the pandemic spread across the globe, Burundi had been resistant to introducing mitigating measures such as social distancing or lockdown rules. On 12 May, the World Health Organization’s country representative and three other staff members were expelled from Burundi. While the reasons for the expulsion are not entirely clear, media reports have referred to an anonymous Burundian official who pointed to “unacceptable interference” in the country’s management of COVID-19 as a factor.